Offsite construction sector learn benefits of collaboration

Tom Nutland from UKCES demonstrates how learning from experience and collaboration is making a difference to the offsite construction industry who have spearheaded the UK Futures Programme

I once heard a classic story – no doubt untrue – about an aspiring young writer and the importance of learning the right lesson. The story goes that the fresh-faced journalist received a curt note from his editor upon filing his first submission to the paper. The note read ‘Too many words.’ The next day the young journalist filed this story:

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A shocking affair occurred last night. Sir Edward Hopeless, as guest at Lady Panmore’s ball, complained of feeling ill, took a highball, his hat, his coat, his departure, no notice of his friends, a taxi, a pistol from his pocket, and finally his life. Nice chap. Regrets and all that.

It’s fair to say the journalist definitely used fewer words – but he also entirely missed the editor’s point. He simply didn’t learn the right lesson.

It’s important to focus on ‘what works’ and what gets the job done better. Focusing on this will always ensure you learn the right lessons, unlike the journalist. That’s the principle at the heart of the UK Futures Programme.

So from journalism to offsite construction, where finding out what works and then getting on with it is crucial for the future of the sector and its ability to innovate, develop and progress.

Offsite construction is a niche sector which has the potential to effect big change. Currently offsite construction accounts for 7 per cent of all construction output in the UK and is worth £1.5 billion to the UK economy. But the sector is ready to grow and in doing so help solve some of the UK’s most pressing problems. We face a housing crisis and under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK is obliged to ‘transition towards a low carbon economy’ – two challenges which the offsite construction sector is well placed to help meet.

However, the offsite construction sector faces looming skills shortages, and the processes which allow companies to exploit offsite construction are relatively under-developed. The sector needs to reduce costs by a third, halve construction-related emissions, halve project delivery time and increase exports by 50 per cent. In short, offsite construction needs to become faster, leaner and greener.

The combination of a relatively small sector with huge potential and a broad consensus regarding what needs to change is why the offsite construction sector was chosen to be the focus of the first Productivity Challenge of the UK Futures Programme (UKFP).

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), who run the UK Futures Programme, selected five projects to co-invest in and work with. The projects were led by key figures in the offsite construction industry: BuildOffSite, Skanska, Edinburgh Napier University, Laing O’Rourke and the Steel Construction Institute.

By channelling small investments through individual projects towards the sectors, occupations or locations which offer the greatest scope for learning UKCES’s aim is to learn ‘what works’ and help companies apply it.

So what did we discover?

The first learning point was to head back to basics. When project teams tried to understand their skills problems, they needed to take a step back and ask: exactly what skills are missing and which skills are necessary? Are these skills still relevant for the 21st century offsite construction sector? Who do we need to speak to in order to gauge whether these skills are required across the sector or only with one specific role?

These questions may seem basic, but in answering them, project teams consulted with their partners to validate the body of UKCES research on their skills gaps. This process brought disparate groups together, from across the sector, from within supply chains and from all over the country. In doing so, they developed a common language and they laid the foundations for future collaboration on a sector basis.

Which bring us to our second learning point: collaboration. When faced with a sector-wide skills shortage, individual responses from companies or even supply chains are ill-equipped to build the talent pipelines they need. For a sector to survive and thrive, competing businesses must learn the right lessons from mistakes and collaborate to address their common need.

There’s a famous story about the 1960s space race – probably just as untrue as the first. Astronauts couldn’t write in space, because ordinary pens wouldn’t work in zero gravity. So NASA hired Paul Fisher to design a pen that would write in space. Months later, after $1.5 million of research, he came up with a solution. At last NASA had a state-of-the-art pen that worked in zero gravity, performed in a vacuum, and could cope with drastic temperature change. Meanwhile, the Russian cosmonauts had the same problem, so they used a pencil.

What if these traditional adversaries had worked together and learned lessons from each other?  A key lesson learned from the Offsite Construction Productivity Challenge is knowing when to collaborate, even with those with whom you are usually in competition.

Attracting collaborators and keeping them engaged is crucial, but it requires group relationships, tangible benefits, and risk mitigation to get the ball rolling. It also needs explicit, durable mechanisms to ensure sustainable long-term relationships. Feedback pointed to the value of large membership-based sectoral organisations in co-ordinating this.

To this end the UKFP ran three ‘Co-creation Labs’ during the life of the Productivity Challenge, which were whole day workshops designed to promote collaborative working and innovative thinking. The workshops also allowed project teams to meet government and wider sectoral bodies.

However, to be effective these workshops need to be timed for the stage in a project where practitioners are ready to upscale and begin engaging with external partners – not when they are still developing their designs.

Collaboration needs time, trust, and effective mechanisms which allow collaborators to meet. It cannot be seen as a one-off; the necessary depth of knowledge and trust won’t be there. The only way to ensure these ingredients are there is leadership, our third learning point.

Leaders need to take responsibility, and show foresight in not only diagnosing the problems but implementing the solutions facing their organisations. In offsite construction there is a clear need for industry leadership to capitalise on the opportunities afforded by industrialisation of the sector.

These solutions don’t need to be stunningly innovative – they can be as simple as transferring learning from one sector to another. For example, the Productivity Challenge stimulated ideas where projects adapted solutions from different contexts into the offside construction sector. There was a clear advantage in learning from the experience of other sectors and adapting solutions which had been effective elsewhere into the offsite construction sector. As one project team member put it, there’s no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’.

Employers need to recognise that their future and the fortunes of their sector, supply chain or region are closely aligned. Like with NASA and their $1.5 million pen, it is in employers’ interest to take action and develop bold solutions on whichever level works – be it with a sector, region or supply chain group. This represents a cultural and a cognitive gear-shift – towards collaboration where necessary, without sacrificing the competition which keeps industries (or space programmes) vibrant.

Beyond working with supply chains and other businesses, employers can engage more with education providers. The benefits of this are obvious. Having high quality training materials and accredited qualifications tailored to address skills gaps is the only reliable way to build up a talent pipeline which is trusted by the offsite construction sector.

However, there is a further benefit which the Productivity Challenge highlighted – too often we found that education institutions were not equipping students with up-to-date skills. More involvement from businesses would enable and compel education institutions to keep their teaching relevant and applicable.

Overall, it’s clear that, like the ambitious journalist, learning the right lessons is crucial. The offsite construction Productivity Challenge highlighted the value of going back to basics, collaboration and leadership. There are many other lessons to learn, which you can find in the Final Report.

About the author

Tom Nutland works with the policy team on youth employment at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES). Find out more at


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